London has an undeserved reputation for being an expensive city, but apart from rent most other living expenses (food, drink, clothes, entertainment, telecommunication bills) are significantly cheaper than they are in Melbourne. Best of all, there are so many things you can do and see for free: in particular, visit most of its world-class museums and galleries.
You may notice a couple of conspicuous absences from my top 10 list below: the fact is that of course there are more than 10 fantastic free attractions in London, these are simply my favourites. (And I haven’t even included any parks or window shopping opportunities as I’ll be covering them separately.) Three particularly obvious absences are the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and The British Museum. These three are great, but they’re also the most popular so they can get overly crowded – particularly the British Museum, good grief!
“The world’s greatest museum of art and design” has something for everyone, from classical sculpture and art to fashion and contemporary design and everything in between. My favourite sections are the European cast courts, Japanese netsuke and inro collections, modern section of the furniture gallery, and I highly recommend the free introductory tour. The main cafe is another highlight – a little pricey but absolutely beautiful with an excellent selection of treats and the best Earl Grey tea I’ve ever tasted.
The British Library puts together fascinating temporary exhibitions on a variety of interesting genres and themes. I thoroughly enjoyed Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It last year and both the current Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction and the upcoming Propaganda: Power and Persuasion sound great. On top of these, the permanent galleries are filled with some simply amazing treasures including a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of the Magna Carta, two of Scott of the Antarctic’s diaries, a letter written by Charles Darwin, works by Shakespeare, a notebook of Jane Austin’s, work of The Beatles, sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci and so much more. Highly recommended!
The Wallace Collection is a gallery and museum inside a historic house just a short walk (and welcome escape) from the crowds of busy Oxford Street. Its collection of European paintings is particularly fine and it also features a world class armoury, but it’s worth visiting to admire the beauty of the house alone. I particularly like the rooms with vibrantly coloured wallpaper – turquoise, red, purple. The central courtyard is home to Peyton and Byrne’s Wallace Restaurant, an excellent spot for afternoon tea.
I can’t put my finger on the exact reason why but I enjoyed The National Gallery a lot more than I expected to. I particularly liked the Van Gogh, Turner and Rembrant collections and the overall size of the gallery is a comfortable: you’ll be able to see everything that interests you in one visit. The free guided taster tour is incredibly informative and they also offer a variety of intriguing trails to help you discover other interesting aspects of the paintings. They have another lovely Peyton and Byrne cafe too.
Not for the faint-hearted, the Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a small but fascinating collection of human and animal parts preserved in jars, with a focus on examples of various diseases. Even though I ended up feeling quite queasy after browsing some of its glass shelves I think it’s a brilliant and unusual place to visit. It’s quite popular with students though so it can get surprisingly busy.
This quirky museum is architect Sir John Soane’s home, preserved as it was full of all the items he collected during his life. The layout of some of the rooms is quite unusual, with mezzanine-like levels that open up on the floors below. Every space is crammed full of statues, casts, books and other antiquities including a genuine Egyptian sarcophagus. You could pair a visit to the Soane Museum with a trip to the Hunterian as they’re on opposite sides of the same green and you’d only need about 2-3 hours to see them both.
The Wellcome Collection’s tagline should be enough to make you want to plan a visit: “A free destination for the incurably curious”. It’s main focus is on the development of medicine throughout the ages and across the world’s cultures. They’re particularly good at putting on exhibitions with fascinatingly macabre or intriguing themes such as death or drugs, accompanied by interesting talks and events.
A fantastic place to learn about the history of the city itself, from its prehistoric and Roman origins to the modern day. The Museum of London also often hosts some very good and popular paid exhibitions so if you’re there to see one of them you should definitely allow extra time to visit the extensive permanent exhibitions as well.
Saatchi’s focus is on contemporary art and most of its exhibitions are temporary, so the quality of your visit will depend on your interest in the works exhibited at the time. When I visited last year there were several photography exhibitions on which I really enjoyed. At the moment the main two appear to be about modern and contemporary Russian art which I wish I could attend! Either way, it’s worth visiting for the one exceptional permanent exhibit in the basement: Richard Wilson’s 20:50. Don’t read anything about it before you visit, just go and see if your brain can process and decipher what you’re looking at – it’s probably the biggest optical illusion you’ll ever see! (I also love the fact that this piece has moved with the Saatchi Gallery to at least three different sites since its creation in 1987.)
A random one at the end! Not a museum or a gallery, but something else which is quite unique. Britain is famous for its television and many of its entertainment shows require a live audience. You can register with Applause to be notified when there are any opportunities for the shows that you’re interested in. The more popular shows (QI, Top Gear, etc) are trickier to get into, but Applause often runs deals where if you sit in on a new or less popular show you can score a priority ticket for something more popular in return. But be prepared to queue, even for the less popular shows! They always need a full house so they issue more standard tickets than they have seats for on the assumption that some people just won’t turn up – which means if everyone does turn up some people won’t get in. (Although if this happens you can sometimes wrangle a priority ticket for the next recording if you ring them.)
London museum visiting tips:
- Check opening hours before you visit! Many are closed at least one day per week and there isn’t really any consistency about what day that is.
- The more popular the museum is the more important it is to go early to avoid queues and crowds.
- Many run free guided tours of particular exhibits – check websites and information desks for details. It can be surprisingly rewarding to attend a tour of an exhibit you wouldn’t normally have been interested in, so be adventurous!
- If you miss out on a guided tour you might be able to hire an audio guide instead. Sometimes this will incur a fee but it’s surprising how much more you can get out of the exhibits when you have more detailed background information about them (I think this is particularly good at art galleries).
- Some of the museums are huge. Websites or brochures sometimes provide a list of “must see” exhibits or a suggested itinerary if you’re short on time.
- Another strategy for coping with a huge museum is to pick an area or two that interest you and spend most of your time there, rather than trying to catch a glimpse of every single thing in the building.
- Besides, the museums will be there for many years: if you feel like you missed out on anything you can always go back another day.
- Some offer adult-only Friday Lates which give you an opportunity to visit the museum with glass of wine in hand, sans screaming children. Sometimes the Lates have special themes or events associated with them – check museum websites for details.
- All the museums and galleries listed above either completely free or at least the permanent exhibitions are free to visit, but if you enjoy them you are normally more than welcome to donate a little money to go towards maintenance and upkeep. Sometimes they will request a small donation if you want a map or to use the cloakroom.
- You can’t always take photos, and the rule can vary for different rooms of the same building. Observe signs and when in doubt ask one of the staff in attendance.
More Top 10 in London: